A tween retelling of Beauty and the Beast hardly raises expectations very high, and though Beastly is for all intents and purposes a strange, failed experiment, it’s surprisingly not as bad as you’d expect, even if a messy screenplay still hampers the good efforts of the cast. Undemanding teens may find some delights in this urban update of the classic tale, but for everyone else, it feels too mild, contrived, and dispassionate.
In as much as transposing the rustic tale onto a contemporary setting, the tale – adapted from Alex Flinn’s novel – fares well enough; our Prince is this time the arrogant, good-looking Kyle Kingston (Alex Pettyfer), who becomes student body president and in this stead plays a cruel trick on an alienated, goth-type classmate, Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen). However, Kendra’s dark, witchy attire is no mere affront; she is actually a witch, and casts a spell on Kyle, turning him into an ugly, scarred, bald shadow of his former self. If he cannot find someone to say “I love you” to him within a year, he will stay this way forever. Hope abounds – in absurdly ham-fisted fashion – once Kyle begins to attract the attention of former classmate Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens), but will she be able to see past the gruesome facade and find the – ahem – true beauty that lurks beneath?
The innate problem with Beastly is that in transporting the fantastical concept onto a gritty modern New York setting – in which Lindy lives with Kyle because her drug dealer father is assailed by gangbangers – they have created an awkward clash of realism and fantasy. The film wants its cake and eat it, to retain the simple – and if we’re honest, potentially quite pat – message behind the original, while expanding the story into a realm perhaps more digestible for fawning teens. Whereas in previous iterations of this story – especially Disney’s seminal version – the fantastic was emphasised, here it is downplayed almost entirely, such that characters just simply shrug, nod and accept that Kyle has been cursed by a witch. As a storyteller, at some point you have to make up your mind as to what you want.
It’s a shame the concept is so full of holes due to the flaky writing, because it’s otherwise tolerable enough; Hudgens and Pettyfer are the beautiful leads everyone wants, and their chemistry will make the target audience blush appropriately. There are a couple of cute scenes between the two, but as soon as the film tries to engage with its bungled central premise again, things fall apart. The key issue is how forced the relationship seems, how easily Lindy lets her guard down and falls for the jackass protagonist. It feels as though a massive chunk – perhaps even an entire reel – went missing somewhere, because near the hour-mark, Lindy curiously begins to talk about how Kyle had all this hidden good beneath the surface, and she says that she feels that she has “known him forever” right out of nowhere. Oh, and it ends in a much-overdone rush-to-the-airport/bus-terminal final dash. Try to keep a straight face; I imagine it seems incredibly lazy whether you’re an easily pleased Twilight fan or not.
However, the supporting roles do add a lot of character here; Neil Patrick Harris embraces the silliness of the material as Kyle’s blind tutor, and Peter Krause enjoys a brief stay as Kyle’s disapproving, distant father, in what is probably the film’s sole decent advancement of the original story’s narrative. However, nobody really gets a screenplay worthy of their talents, resulting in an awkward hodge-podge of tolerable teenage pining and some more aggressively insulting fast-forwards through the moments that really matter, where Kyle should find a way to legitimately turn his life around. This story gives him too easy a way out, and the 86-minute runtime – though forgiving – suggests plenty of room left for character development.
It’s not nearly as bad as you’ve probably heard, thanks to a mercifully short running time and decent performances throughout, but a sloppy script denies Beastly the hormone-infused gravitas it desperately needs.
Beastly is released in the U.K. from tomorrow.